I Quit Smoking But My Palate Is Still Trash

Forty days ago, I quit smoking. Ever since, I’ve been waiting for the taste epiphany people have promised.

by Elise Renoleau; translated by Nicola Rose
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May 9 2018, 4:00pm

Photo via Flickr user artgoeshere

This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES France.

It’s been 40 days, and an apple still tastes like an apple. Since I quit smoking, I still haven't experienced the full, triumphant return of my tastebuds, and it's extremely frustrating.

I make a living as a food writer. That means for years, people have been bugging me about my smoking, which would supposedly “destroy my palate.” The same goes for remarks from my peers when I go out at a restaurant to light one up (“Oh… you smoke?”); commentary from my father at Christmas (“What a shame to bring out your cigarettes after trying this 89 Mouton Rothschild”); not to mention from ex-smokers—the neo-Ayatollahs of healthy living—who seem to have forgotten how to be decent people since emptying their last ashtray. In short, for ages people have been getting mad at me the second I set down a packet of cigarettes on the table. Since I might be stubborn but I'm not a total idiot, I finally wondered: what if, due to the cigs, I was actually missing out on the real tasting experience?

It all began 15 days before I stopped smoking, when I woke up suffering from a temporary ageusia. Yes, you read that right: ageusia. I didn’t know the word either; it’s ugly and frightening, just like what it describes: the loss of the tongue's ability to taste things. While extremely rare, it was likely the consequence of the gastrointestinal bug I'd caught the day before.

Naturally, such a handicap is all the more fun when your job consists, among other things, of cooking food for a TV show. Suddenly I needed to have my assistant taste everything because I was incapable of detecting the least nuance in what I was making. I even bit into an onion to see what would happen: nothing. And since misery loves company, naturally it was the day we had a super-chef on the show—the type who comes into your kitchen with 25 ingredients that you ab-so-lute-ly have to taste! With each mouthful he offered me, I uttered the most genuine “mms” and “amazings” I could muster. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that if he'd made me eat shit it wouldn't have made any difference.

Now, each day without a cigarette brings me closer to the ultimate goal: experiencing the real taste of things.

The following day, the ageusia wore off. I knew it as soon as I lit up a cigarette. The horror was raw—I thought I’d swallowed an ashtray. It was as if my taste buds had woken up, screaming, “We shut up about this for years, but now? Sorry, this is gross!” Indeed, I had to face facts: this hideous sensation on my tongue did have its influence on my perception of taste. And so I decided that I was going to stop.

Now, each day without smoking brings me closer to the ultimate goal: experiencing the real taste of things. All the websites made the same promise: “In 2-3 days, ex-smokers will recover their entire sense of taste.” I was like a kid right before Christmas. I thought that three days after crushing my last cigarette, I’d sob uncontrollably when I bit into a tomato. Two days passed. Then three. Five. Still nothing. Then one morning, I felt the difference, literally: a mixture of piss, cigarette smoke, and exhaust pipes savagely attacked my nostrils on the rue Marcadet. I’d been living in Paris for five years and I had never realized how much the city smelled like death. Now I had the sense of smell of a St. Bernard. Hooray.

In fact, the explanation was very simple: if I hadn't had some kind of gustatory revelation, it was because my tastebuds hadn't really suffered all that much.

After a month without smoking, I began to feel cloudy. Everyone around me had their own theories: “You have to wait at least three months/six months/three years”; “It’s because you live in such a polluted city”; or my personal favorite, “Do you brush your tongue?”

In fact, the explanation was simple: if I hadn’t had some kind of gustatory revelation, it was because my tastebuds hadn’t really suffered all that much from tobacco. I wasn’t the one to come up with that explanation; it was Anne Borgne, an addictologist at the Victor Ségalen Center in Clichy, France. I recounted my story to her on the phone like a teen on the French equivalent of Loveline, and I think it amused her a bit.

Finally she asked me, “But before you quit smoking, did you think you weren’t tasting things?” I must admit I didn’t see that question coming. The truth was, no, that had never been a problem. But since everyone seemed to agree that smoking was the enemy of the true taste experience, and since I had smoked for 12 years, I'd ended up believing it and no longer trusting what I felt.

"Smokers eat saltier, fattier foods because they have a greater need for flavor enhancers. Therefore, stopping smoking also means changing the way you eat.”

A nice doctor—but a doctor all the same—Borgne confirmed for me that tobacco (and, more specifically, burning it) destroys taste buds. But primo, you have about 8,000 of them in your mouth, so you’ve got a bit of leeway there. And secundo, it’s extremely gradual. Lastly, it’s important to note that tastebuds can regenerate as soon as you’ve stopped smoking for a few days.

So in the case of hardcore smokers, yes, it fucks up your tastebuds, but in many cases it’s much more subtle than that. “When you smoke, it’s your fine discrimination that becomes more difficult. You’re less able to distinguish between sugary and salty, or between different aromas,” Borgne explains. The smoker can sense tastes, so, it’s just a bigger pain in the ass to sort out which is which. But what she said afterwards clicked the most: “Smokers eat saltier, fattier foods because they have a greater need for flavor enhancers. Therefore, stopping smoking also means changing the way you eat.”



And there it was—boom! A revelation. Not the one I was expecting, but there it was all the same. I was so obsessed by the idea of discovering a whole new palette of tastes that I hadn’t even watched out for the little details that had changed since I quit smoking. For forty days, I had stopped re-salting my food systematically. I was enjoying desserts that had left me unmoved before. I was eating less fatty stuff without feeling something was missing. Most notably, I could go on a beer-tasting marathon (42 in one afternoon, true story!) without my tastebuds feeling exhausted. And if nothing else, then that, my friends, is one damn good reason to swear off smoking.

Elise still hasn't taken back up cigarettes, and she still talks about food plenty on her Instagram.